Lost in the Translation
As everyone knows, Dragon Ball Z is not the first anime to be brought to the US for nationwide broadcast. In fact, it is merely the latest entry in a tradition that began over a quarter century ago. What exactly characterizes that tradition is arguable, however. Some would say it is a sad story of butchering, careless reversioning, exploitation, and otherwise irresponsible handling of great works of art. Others would say that the history of the US importation of anime is something to be grateful for. After all, if those shows were never brought over (altered or not) many people would have never discovered them, or anime at all, in the first place. But no matter how you look at it, the underlying fact is that these shows are always altered to some degree when being prepared for consumption by a mass audience, and some survive better than others.

I decided that it might be interesting to compare DBZ's North American fate with that of other anime to be transplanted here over the years. To look at everything would take quite a while, and besides, I know very little (if anything) about many of these shows. So this comparison will be limited to Robotech, Sailor Moon and Pokémon, since I have at least some knowledge of both versions of each.

Robotech, many would say, was absolutely destroyed. Three completely unrelated series (Macross, Southern Cross, and Mospeada) were cut together and through some "clever" rewriting of dialogue, given a loose continuity that connected them all. In other words, the overall story of each of the three series was almost completely changed. Just knowing that, it might seem very simple to say that DBZ ended up a whole lot better off.

But did it?

Watch Robotech, and you'll see a whole lot of things that DBZ wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole. Death, blood, punches to the face, and a lot of often subtle, but sometimes very blatant, off-color humor. I have been (very slowly) making my way through watching the Japanese series (well, Macross at least) over the last few months, and I continue to be surprised by just how much WASN'T edited. I was expecting to see all sorts of "lost" footage that had been removed for sanitation purposes, but there's actually alarmingly little. Sure, there are cuts, but if the DBZ censors had gotten a hold of this show... well, I shudder to think.

The dialogue of the original has also been a big shock, because its translation into Robotech is strikingly faithful, something that took me completely off guard. As I said, however, the overall story was changed quite a bit to fit all three series together coherently, so dialogue pertaining to the overall plot has been altered significantly. But even at that, almost all of the normal, everyday dialogue is essentially an exact translation of the original Japanese script.

As far as the dubbing, well... Robotech is pretty bad acting-wise. But more often than not, the sound of the actual voices themselves match very closely with the original actors. Through this, combined with the faithful dialogue translation, many of the characters have maintained their overall essence to an appreciable extent.

We have the opposite situation in DBZ. FUNimation has somehow managed to keep the overall story intact more or less (except for a few key points), while utterly destroying, twisting, and mangling almost every single line of dialogue in the process. Their stupid attempts at humor, their "reinterpretation" of the characters, and the idiotic pop-culture references (just to name a few of the problems with the scripts) really change things drastically. Then they hire voices that sound nothing like the originals, and when you add it all up the viewer is left with a very different interpretation of the characters and the finer details of the DB world. They may have kept most of the names intact, but faithful dialogue translation is so much more important.

As for the music, Macross' wonderful score was replaced (as is the case with 99% of all broadcast anime) with a new one, but Robotech's music really isn't half bad, and almost retains the spirit and feel of the original. And even though I like the Japanese theme, I actually prefer the English version's strong, heroic, and memorable opening music. And then there's DBZ. You all know how I feel about what FUNimation let Shuki Levy do with the score, and I need not bring up "Rock the Dragon" again. I would say that Robotech fared much better in the music department than DBZ, but that's a gross understatement.

Overall, I'd say that although it was definitely screwed with quite a bit, Robotech remained came through at least a little better than DBZ did. Some of you may be saying at this point: "What the HFIL, Chris? In your opinion essay you said that Robotech was a lot worse than DBZ!" Well, I've changed my mind. I've seen more of the original series now, and I've softened quite a bit on the whole Robotech issue. It really isn't that terrible.

And now we move on to that "little girl's show" that arrived on American shores the same month that Dragon Ball did: Sailor Moon. I have always enjoyed this show, and I freely admit it. I'm no Moonie, but come on! It's about 5 teenage girls running around in short skirts! How can I say no to that? Well, those were my initial feelings anyway. As time went on, however, I began to really appreciate the story and characters. But enough about my "feelings," how well did DIC do?

From what I've seen of the original version (just a couple episodes), and from what I've heard here and there... it's pretty much a mixed bag. The voices and dubbing are above average (at least in anime terms) although some members of the cast were a bit off. Usagi (Serena) for example, sounds WAY too old and..um...developed. At least her latter voice, anyway. The girl that was doing it for the first few episodes was fantastic, I really wished they hadn't changed actresses. And Jill Frappier's Luna actually seemed much more appropriate than the original voice, some Japanese fans even prefer it. Both the writing and voice acting as a whole seemed to decrease significantly in quality in the second season, though.

The music, while nothing to write home about, also fit pretty well, and sounded at least vaguely similar to the original. And the theme... Well, dumb lyrics, but at least it had the same melody as the Japanese song.

As far as editing is concerned, DIC doesn't seem to be as chop-happy as FUNimation. They're not as into condensing scenes, hacking them out, or even trashing entire episodes at a time. Only a few episodes were removed from the English version. Censor-type edits are also less common, digital paint is used very sparingly (hardly ever, in fact.), oh, and one more thing: they can say die. Not only that, but dying can actually happen.

Probably the greatest evil that DIC committed were some terrible distortions of character. The most notable being when they took Zoicite, an androgynous male villain involved in a homosexual relationship with one of the other principle bad guys, and turned him into a woman. Also, they converted Rei's (Sailor Mars') grandpa from a senile, cootish old pervert to a senile old...guy (a la Kame Sennin). The list doesn't end there, although those are the most outstanding examples. And the changes will doubtlessly continue if the translation of the series goes on; another homosexual relationship (this time lesbian) features prominently in the yet untranslated shows.

Despite it's very obvious faults, I'd say that DIC did a better job with SM than FUNimation did with DBZ, at least from what I've seen and heard. But I know a lot of people who would vehemently disagree with me, so there could be plenty I don't even know about (Sailor Moon Uncensored?). And in some cases what FUNimation did right, DIC did wrong (and vice versa). For example, that "Sailor Says" thing is pretty awful, but then again, I'd take SM's opening theme over DBZ's in a second.

At any rate, my opinion is somewhat marred since I've only had the chance to directly compare one Japanese SM episode to it's corresponding English one. Maybe this particular case wasn't representative of the whole series, but all I know is that the conversion was absolutely pristine. Not a hint of editing, anywhere. And I remember listening to it in headphones, Japanese soundtrack in one ear, English in the other, and marveling at how similar some of the voices sounded. I guess another one of my problems comparing the two versions is that Sailor Moon just isn't as "personal" to me as Dragon Ball, so I don't have much of a bias. Perhaps not enough.

All I know is that I'm eternally grateful that DIC outbid Saban for the rights to the show, and those of you who have seen Saban's two-minute "pilot" will know exactly what I'm talking about. If you come across it on the Internet one of these days (it's out there somewhere), brace yourself, and don't say I didn't warn you. It's more terrifying than the Holocaust. They made their own version from the ground up, a truly nightmarish combination of live action and all-new American animation.

Last but not least, we have Pokémon, another show that I must admit to really liking. And what can I say about the conversion? Well, plain and simple, this is by far the most faithful-to-the-original broadcast anime I have ever seen. These people (4Kids Productions) take some risks! Why couldn't they have gotten the rights to Dragon Ball? About the only "censoring" they've done so far is to darken the screen slightly when there are any especially bright or strobing effects. (Long story behind that, but I'm sure you're all well aware of the "Pokémon incident.") I've seen this show deal with death, religious overtones, lechery, violence, and all that other good stuff with complete confidence.

And listening to it is great! The casting, the dubbing, the writing... WONDERFUL! They've even gone so far as to keep the original Japanese voices for MOST of the Pokémon! Absolutely unheard of! But that's not even the crown jewel.... the music, the wonderful Japanese music, has been KEPT! The US producers have added some of their own, but that's OK. It all sounds great, and what matters is that THE JAPANESE STUFF IS STILL THERE! And then there's the theme song... Ok, it was changed, but the new song is pretty damned cool. I like it better than the Japanese one, actually. Again, it's a bit lacking in the lyric department, but it's good.

How about episode output? Well, 4Kids showed more Pokémon in the first 3 months than DBZ has in 3 years! (Same thing with DIC and Sailor Moon, now that I think about it). And more are on the way, 52 new shows are planned for next year. It's enough to make me want to tear my hair out in frustration. WHY COULDN'T IT HAVE BEEN DRAGON BALL??

What I'm getting at here is that I'm very jealous, maybe even a little bitter, about how well things have turned out for Pokémon. And I'm not just talking about how it was treated by the American producers, this thing is an unprecedented runaway success. It was doing so well in syndication that Warner Brothers bought the rights, and it's now the top-rated freakin' kid's show on the WB! Plans are in the works to release the Pokémon movie theatrically nationwide, the toys are all over the place, the premiere issue of the comic is Viz' highest seller ever, the video game is the most popular Game Boy cartridge yet, it just goes on and on! They even have fast food tie-ins, For Kami's sake! it just ISN'T FAIR! Meanwhile, what the hell is FUNimation doing? Grr. Save our Sailors actually has an article up about the situation, and they're pretty much in the same position that I am about Sailor Moon's lack of comparable success.

So, needless to say, I think that Pokémon was handled much, MUCH better than DBZ, in just about every way. I must admit though, it had a few things working in its favor from the outset. First, there was a lot less objectionable material to be "fixed" for US broadcast, so it's not exactly fair to compare it to DBZ or even Sailor Moon in that respect. If there's not much that needs to be cut, then.. well... not much is going to be cut, hence, not as much for purists to notice and complain about. Second, Pokémon has the money, power, and influence of Nintendo to back it up and make sure that the thing gets good timeslots, licensees, and is aggressively marketed to be pounded into people's psyches.

Well, there you have it. Dragon Ball Z, and how it has fared against three other popular broadcast anime. My final verdict? It was mistreated more than all of them (although it's a REAL close call with Robotech due to the fact that they royally screwed up the story). But I've seen worse, oh I've seen worse. Power Rangers, Voltron, Macron 1, Gatchaman (Eagle Riders). DBZ isn't the bottom of the barrel, and as I've said, there's a lot I like about the English version. But it still doesn't live up to the new benchmark that I truly believe has now been set by Pokémon. Let's hope that third season of Dragon Ball Z will break that record.

NEXT TIME: So far this site has concentrated mostly on the US release of the Dragon Ball anime...but what about the manga? I haven't yet said a peep about Viz' take on Toriyama's masterpiece, but the time has come for critical Chris to do his thing. How does it look? Is the translation everything it should be? Are they doing things right, or pulling a FUNimation? Find out what I think!

 Past Editorials